Numb3rs for your market

Origins, selected translations of numerals. (Wikipedia)

Origins, selected translations of numerals. (Wikipedia)

Emerson and Whitman, may have reveled in contradiction, but consistent use of quantitative information—numerals (numbers are unique numerals)—is a prime necessity of good editorial style.* The problem is that most style guides are contradictory about numerals. Although they do have “rules,” the rules for expressing quantities are varied. That means you will have to make decisions for your company and document them.

Nevertheless, readers do have an instinctual awareness that there’ something wrong when they see one million, two hundred sixty-seven thousand, nine-hundred and four written out. Problem is that different style guides show wildly varying rules for expressing values or measures. Even so, your company’s writers need to follow set conventions for expressing numerals, dates and times in general marketing writing. That ‘tweener place, user documentation, should follow these general-audience guidelines unless the users are technical or scientific types (e.g., coders, chemists, engineers).

Numerals or words?

  • In the case of counts of items, write out all numerals under (but not including) 10. Use numerals to represent numbers 10 to infinity unless the number begins a sentence: Twenty people attended.
  • This “under 10” rule is also violated when a pair of numbers appears side by-side: There were sixteen, 5-person teams.
  • Ordinal numbers use the same conventions. First, second, third, fourth, etc. are written as such. Larger numbers use the appropriate suffix—10th, 23rd, 32nd (but see Dates below). Most word processing and some CSS will use subscript for nd, st, etc., but doing so this can call for time-consuming HTML and CSS adjustments in line spacing in hypertext documents.
  • When referring to ages, always use numerals with hyphens: A 6-year-old boy. An 83-year-old grandfather. 
  • In headlines or headings, always use numerals. Train wreck kills 6**
  • Units of measure are another case where numbers under ten are not spelled out, and there are other issues: The room was is a 12 feet, 4 inches wide, but He climbed 6-foot tree. (Without getting all linguistic, just remember that measures such as foot and pound and meter are plurals when used as part of a compound modifier). Using single and double quotation marks (‘, “) to signify feet and inches may good shorthand for carpentry, but not for technical marketing communications: ft., in and mm. will do, but most technology measures use the metric system: 6 mm, 8 cm. Abbreviations for English measures are followed by a period; metric units are not.
  • Percentages are represented by the numeral—even those under 10) followed by percent. A lot of copy, such as statistics, provide ranges such as 8 to 12 percent. AP has recently (2008) changed its guideline to 15-20 percent. Some style guides advise the use of the % symbol (IBM, does in every case, APA in so-called “scientific” texts, whatever that means). Percentage is used as a non-specific term: a high percentage were against the motion; and in reference to percentage changes, usually with pointsHousing starts moved up three percentage points in April.
  • The plural form of a numeral is formed by merely adding an s, not ‘s: In the 1920s, he was in his late 40s. (Acronyms, conversely, take an ‘s.)
  • Large numbers such as 3.2 million are expressed as they are here. Strangely, AP is sticking with (so far) the from 3 million to 4 million expression (see percentages above), with million used with both numerals in the range. This holds true when speaking of currency in US dollars: $5 million to $10 million. The exception is cents: rather than people putting in their $0.02 worth, they still put in their two cents worth, although they buy 80 cents worth of penny nails.

Time and date

  • Times are usually represented by numerals. An exception would be something like seven o’clock in a direct quotation. Otherwise, use 7 p.m., 11 a.m. Most style guides makes the exceptions of noon and midnight for the reason that many people have a problem knowing immediately what 12 a.m and 12  p.m. mean. AP and IBM styles uses only one numeral for “on-hour” times: 2 p.m. Apple style is to use 2:00 p.m.
  • If your company does business in more than one time zone nationally and/or internationally you have choices. News organization have taken to using ET (Eastern Time), etc. without reference to whether Daylight Savings or Standard Times apply (many international news outlets like the BBC read your IP and adjust and record the time to be where you are).
  • Using United States time zones is okay if your company conducts business only within the US (AP and NYT still use U.S., but even the Chicago style is now US) but other countries have other dates (and some don’t) on which Savings Times are in effect. In marketing communications such as blog posts and press releases, you have the options of using ET, or ET, US; ET,USA; EST,US; EST, USA.
  • Providing dates is another style practice that can result in confusion, especially when you are using numbers only to refer to a date. For example 3/2/13 means March 2 (never 2nd), 2013 in the US, but February 3, 2013 in European and European influenced countries such as India, Indonesia, etc., where 3 February 2013 is the date style). So it’s best always to write out the month no matter what ordering of date elements you are using. If I wrote your marketing style guide, we would use the more widespread 2 April 2013. If you choose to express a date or time as numeral only, use the ISO rule in both instances. That organization moves time left to right from, the largest chunk to the smallest: 2013-3-2: and 14:34:12 UTC (for UTC time see measures for technical documentation). By this logic, the wheel might have been invented BC 2013-4-2!


*Emerson: “”A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
** My favorite headline ever? Appearing in a the Grand Forks (ND) Herald: “Fertile woman dies near Climax.” Fertile and Climax are two towns in northwestern Minnesota.

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Posted in Communicate Your Technology, Editorial Style

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